California Personal Injury Laws and Statutes of Limitations

The Golden State's deadlines for personal injury lawsuits, its rule for cases where the defendant shares some blame for their injuries, and more.

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Charles Crain, Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

If you've been hurt by someone else's negligent or wrongful conduct, make sure you understand the basics of how personal injury cases work in your state. California law determines when and how a victim can file a lawsuit. The state also has a so-called "pure comparative negligence" rule for deciding how much compensation a plaintiff can receive if they share some of the blame for their own injuries. California even has special rules for certain kinds of cases--for example, dog-bite or medical malpractice lawsuits.

Knowing how these rules apply to your situation is a key step in deciding how to handle your case.

California's Statute of Limitations for Personal Injury Lawsuits

All states set limits on the amount of time you have to file a lawsuit in civil court after you've suffered some type of harm. This kind of law is called a statute of limitations, and there are different deadlines depending on the kind of case you're filing.

California's statute of limitations for personal injury cases gives you two years from the date of the incident to file a lawsuit against the people you think are legally responsible. In most situations, the "clock" starts on the date of the accident or other incident that led to your injury.

(Cal. Civ. Code § 335.1 (2024).)

The Consequences of Missing the Statute of Limitations Deadline

If you fail to file your lawsuit before within the period allowed by California law, the court will likely refuse to hear your case, and you'll lose your right to ask any court for a legal remedy for the harm you've suffered. This is obviously a harsh result, and it illustrates the importance of understanding and complying with statute of limitations deadline.

When California Allows Extensions of the Deadline for Filing a Lawsuit

While statutes of limitations are strictly enforced, there are rare situations where potential plaintiffs are allowed additional time. For example:

  • if the the accident victim was under 18 at the time of their injury, the clock starts ticking when they turn 18
  • if the person responsible for the accident leaves California, the time they spend out of state does not count towards the deadline, and
  • in certain cases where a victim was not immediately aware of their injuries, the clock starts ticking when they discovered (or should have discovered) those injuries.

That last situation is unlikely to come up in most personal injury cases--usually a person who's been injured will be aware of it as it's happening, or within a short time afterwards. But sometimes in can take longer for injuries to become obvious. For example, the health problems caused by asbestos exposure, or by medical malpractice, may take years to develop.

If you have questions about how California's statutes of limitations apply to your situation, it may be helpful to consult with a local attorney with experience handling personal injury claims.

(Cal. Civ. Code § 351 (2024); Cal. Civ. Code § 352 (2024); Daley v. Regents of Univ. of Cal., 39 Cal.App.5th 595 (Cal. Ct. App. 2019).)

How California's Statute of Limitations Could Affect an Insurance Claim

California's statutes of limitations do not apply to insurance claims. The state's deadlines only cover the amount of time you have to file a lawsuit in court. But it's still a good idea to have the statute of limitations in mind as your dealing with your insurance claim.

You'll almost certainly start any injury-related insurance claim within a few weeks or a few months of your accident. You should make sure the process gets started within a reasonable amount of time, and that it moves along at a reasonable pace. By avoiding delays in the claims process, you'll leave yourself plenty of time to go to court and file a lawsuit if you need to.

Giving yourself time to file a lawsuit is a good idea even if you're confident that your insurance claim will reach a fair settlement. At the very least, preserving the option to go to court and file a lawsuit will give you more leverage during injury settlement talks.

How to File a Personal Injury Lawsuit in California

The first steps in a lawsuit are filing a complaint and asking the court to issue a summons. The complaint lays out your claims against the person or business you're suing (the defendant), and includes a request for compensation for your injuries and related losses. The summons lets the defendant know that they're being sued. It's important to remember that it's your responsibility (or your lawyer's) to make sure that the defendant in your case is served with copies of the complaint and the summons.

Your personal injury lawsuit will almost certainly be filed in one of California's "superior" (or trial) courts, which have jurisdiction over all civil trials in the state. Chances are, you'll file in the courthouse that's in the California county where the person you're suing lives, or where your injury occurred. (It's possible that a personal injury claim could end up in federal court, but only if the plaintiff and the defendant live in different states, and the plaintiff is asking for at least $75,000 in damages.)

California's courts have a website with instructions and advice for people who are considering representing themselves in a lawsuit. The site also includes documents like a personal injury complaint and a summons.

As the court's website notes, it's important to consider whether a lawsuit makes sense in your situation. You should also think carefully about whether you can handle your case on your own, or if you'd benefit from working with an attorney.

California Makes It More Difficult to Sue Government Agencies and Employees

Injury claims involving the potential liability of the government—whether a city, county or California state government agency—will need to play by a unique set of rules. These rules are laid out in the California Tort Claims Act, and they make it difficult (and often impossible) to successfully sue state agencies or employees.

For example, potential plaintiffs have less time to file a lawsuit against government defendants. The usual two-year personal injury statute of limitations doesn't apply; instead, you have only six months to file an injury claim against a government entity or employee.

California (like all states and the federal government) also gives itself and its employees broad immunity from lawsuits. Immunity means that an agency or employee can't be sued, even if they've done something that would normally make them legally responsible for your injuries.

These obstacles don't mean that you can never bring a successful personal injury lawsuit against a government defendant. But it's important to understand the challenges you'll face. This is another situation where it may be helpful to consult an attorney before going ahead with your case.

(Cal. Gov. Code § 911.2 (2024)

What Happens If You're Partly at Fault for Your Own Injuries

In some personal injury cases, the defendant may make the argument that the injured person is actually to blame (at least partially) for causing the underlying accident. If you do share some level of liability, it can end up affecting the total amount of compensation you can receive from other at-fault parties.

In shared-fault injury cases, California follows a "pure comparative negligence" rule. In basic terms, the amount of compensation you're entitled to receive will be reduced by an amount that equals your percentage of fault for the accident.

California's Pure Comparative Negligence System

Let's say you're in a car accident where the other driver blatantly ran a stop sign, but you were driving a few miles an hour above the posted speed limit at the time. You might share 10 percent of the blame for the accident, while the other driver is 90 percent at fault. Let's say your damages (that is, the losses you suffered because of the accident) add up to $10,000.

How does your shared fault for the accident impact your compensation?

Under California's pure comparative negligence rule, your compensation will be reduced to $9,000--the $10,000 total, minus the $1,000 that represents your share of fault for the accident.

How Pure Comparative Negligence Could Affect an Insurance Settlement

While courts in California are obligated to follow the state's comparative negligence rule in an injury lawsuit that makes it to trial, it may be a different story if you're dealing with an insurance adjuster outside the court system.

Don't be surprised if the adjuster raises the issue of California's comparative negligence rule during settlement talks. Since it's something that might affect the amount of money you'd receive in a lawsuit, the insurance company will use it to argue that you should accept a smaller insurance settlement.

But keep in mind that the rule only applies to the amount of damages a judge or jury can award to a plaintiff in a lawsuit. It doesn't apply to the amount of an insurance settlement, or the amount of a negotiated settlement in a lawsuit. The parties in those situations have more flexibility to negotiate a settlement that seems fair to both sides.

Personal Injury Lawsuits Against California Dog Owners

Like many states, California has rules that affect how a lawsuit works when a victim sues a dog owner over injuries inflicted by their pet.

California has statute that applies specifically to cases where someone has been bitten by a dog. This rule makes owners "strictly liable" for bite injuries. Strict liability means that a victim can recover damages without having to show that the owner was negligent, or that the owner knew their pet might be dangerous.

Keep in mind that this statute only applies to bites. But if you've been hurt by a dog in another way (for example, if it scratched you or knocked you over), you can still sue the owner for negligence, using the same rules that apply in most personal injury cases.

(Cal. Civ. Code § 3342 (2024).)

Caps on Personal Injury Damages in California

California does not put a universal cap on the damages a personal injury plaintiff can receive in court after a successful lawsuit. But the state does have some limits on the damages available in certain kinds of cases and situations.

No "Pain and Suffering" Damages for Most Uninsured Drivers

California law prevents most uninsured drivers from recovering "non-economic" damages after a car accident, even if the other driver is completely at fault for the accident. Non-economic damages are things like pain and suffering, as opposed to economic damages like medical bills and lost wages.

There is a key exception to this rule. An uninsured driver can recover non-economic losses in a lawsuit if:

  • the accident was caused by a driver who was operating a vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and
  • that driver was convicted of DUI in connection with the accident.

(Cal. Civ. Code § 3333.4 (2024).)

California's Cap on Non-Economic Damages in Medical Malpractice Cases

Another key California law that places a limit on certain kinds of damages is the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA). This law places limits on non-economic damages in most medical malpractice cases.

MICRA was amended in 2023, raising the cap on pain-and-suffering damages to $350,000 in negligence cases, and $500,000 in wrongful death cases.

Under the new version of MICRA, those caps will increase every year until 2034, until the cap for negligence is $750,000 and the cap for wrongful death is $1,000,000. After that, the caps will increase by two percent each year to account for inflation.

(Cal. Civ. Code § 3333.2 (2024).)

Learn More About California's Personal Injury Laws

California's court system has a guide to personal injury lawsuits for people who are considering handling their own case. It can sometimes make sense for a plaintiff to represent themselves. But if you're unsure how to proceed you should consider consulting an attorney. Working with an experienced lawyer is especially important if you've suffered serious injuries or economic losses, or if your case is especially complicated. An attorney will be able to help you understand your legal options and decide on the best approach to your case.

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